Back on Earth | Sol 14 and Life After Life On Mars

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I’m back home in Ireland over three months now and the sleepless nights, chronic dehydration and my obsession with water levels are long gone. Some stuff still remains.

But before I get into that, let me tell you the final part of my story as part of Crew 173 at MDRS:

Sol 14:

The evening of Sol 13, our last evening at MDRS was almost identical to our first evening. Except this time, we were on the other side of the table. We were taking Crew 174, the Planeteers, through the Habitat, telling them about what procedures to follow, how to suit up, going through the daily checks, monitoring the water reserves, what to do if the toilet blocks, the mysterious data usage during the night, and using tinfoil to cover your plates! Our packed suitcases were back on the ground floor near the engineering airlock, ready for our departure in the morning.

It also meant that we were no longer in SIM, which meant that we could venture outside, without the cumbersome helmet and oxygen pack. Or boots. I could run up hills again, go anywhere I wanted on the ATVs. We were all slightly skittish at the thought that we were going to be back on Earth soon. I started fantasising about pancakes and bacon and heaps of coffee. On a plate, without tinfoil. And as we got more animated, the more Crew 174 thought we had gone stir crazy. They were probably wondering whether they would be like that after their 14 Sols at MDRS. I know on my first night, I thought the same of Crew 172. And being on the other side now, I better understood.

We lit a fire outside later that night, to burn some rubbish and other odds and ends laying about the habitat. It was just grand sitting outside, around the fire, on that bitterly cold night. Idriss took out his laser pointer and treated us to another stargazing session, pointing out stars we hadn’t seen before, sharing distances and sizes and all sorts of delicious facts.

We just lay on the ground around the fire, watching stars and listening to Idriss. Content in that moment. And as the last burning embers began to fade, we headed inside for our last night. My last night in that stuffy room of hot dry air. As I was laying there (NOT sleeping, as ever), I had mixed feelings about leaving in the morning. Sure I was looking forward to seeing everyone again and enjoying the spoils of living in actual houses with fresh food. But I was also sad. I had lived a very simple life these past 14 Sols. I wanted for nothing, because there was nothing to want! I had everything I needed, and while it was basic, I was really comfortable with living meagrely. I wondered how I would adjust to being back on Earth.

Roy suggested that we get up to watch the sunrise together, so at 7am, we all tapped gently on each others walls, trying not to wake Crew 174 still asleep in the communal area. We climbed the nearest hill and watched the it together. Our final act as Crew 173 at MDRS.

When we got back inside, Crew 174 were up, and making breakfast. In our kitchen. Around our table. But of course, none of it was ours anymore. The handover was complete. We gladly accepted a coffee from them, packed the SUV with our gear, and waved them goodbye. Michaela, Idriss, Rick, Roy and I were now officially back on Earth.

Hanksville is the closest ‘town’ to the MDRS facility. It was about 8.30am and we headed to the only open diner (there are only two), entitled ‘Sheilas’ with lace curtains and Christmas decorations in the window. As planned, I ordered pancakes with heaps of coffee. Delicious. Time to use money again too. Roy and Michaela took the map out and planned our last day together- a road trip to Canyonlands national park about 80 miles away was decided. I went to the loo just before leaving ‘Sheilas’. It was spotless. I didn’t know whether to flush or not, it felt wrong wasting so much water on my few millilitres of urine. But I did, and the pressure in that flush was astounding! As I headed to the truck, Roy was looking back at the diner and said ‘I’m not sure that I want to get used to all this luxury again’. I knew what he meant, it all seemed so indulgent, so easy.

Canyonlands National Park (Credit Niamh Shaw) - HeadStuff.org

PHOTO: Canyonlands National Park Credit: Niamh Shaw)

We had an awesome afternoon together in Canyonlands, with Roy and Michaela telling us about the geological features of this stunning national park that ranges in age from the Pennsylvanian to Cretaceous (yes, I have learned from my crew mates!).

And then it was time to go our separate ways. Roy & Idriss were the first to break the crew up, they were travelling onward to Los Angeles. So we all hugged, said goodbye and that was that. I checked in to the same hotel in Grand Junction where it had all began only 2 weeks ago. Its a pretty basic motel, but not to me this time. I had a bed, with a mattress. And pillows. And sheets too! And the shower? Wow! I think I was in there for at least 30 minutes. And if I say so myself, I smelled incredible!! We went out for drinks in the nearby bar. Again, so indulgent.

The next morning I got the greyhound bus back to Denver and then onward to New York. Other than sleeping, my time there was spent sending everyone edited pictures and video clips. The media in our home countries were keen to speak to us and we had to provide them with images etc for interview. I missed everyone terribly, more than I should. I mean we had only spent 14 Sols together.

But MDRS is a unique experience and going through everything together, we bonded on a much deeper level: maybe it was always keeping a watchful eye on each other while on EVA, or cooking for each other, or figuring out how to solve Poopgate, the Gigabyte Hobgoblin, or consistently monitoring the water tank. Or may be it was all of it, experiencing it all together. And each sharing a sense of achievement for surviving the isolation.

I arrived back in Dublin at 5.30am and got the air coach home. My apartment seemed ENORMOUS, and it took me a couple of weeks to adjust to owning so many possessions. And the silence. No heaters, no water pumps, no radio. No Crew. I still miss them.

Epilogue:

It really was an incredible adventure and something I’m very proud to have achieved. I hadn’t expected to deal so capably with the harsh environment, or the isolation. I had worried so much about not showering and the lack of privacy. But I did just fine. The experience showed me that I could push myself much harder than I had expected. And that I wouldn’t do too badly if put in the same situation again. Which is why I want to continue with isolation studies. Maybe a longer one the next time. It’s all good preparation should I ever get a place on the next trip to Mars.
The interest in the mission has also been great and we are all continuing to do our bit in talking to schools and the general public about our time at MDRS. We still keep in touch. Maybe not as much as we used to, but we’re all still there for each other. There’s talk of a reunion, but let’s see how that goes. Thanks for the memories Crew 173.

Over and Out.

Crew 173 flight suits (Credit Niamh Shaw) - HeadStuff.org

Photo: Crew 173 flight suits (Credit Niamh Shaw)

Sol 0 | Mars Simulation in the Utah Desert
Sol 1 | The First EVA
Sol 2 | Celebrating Mars Israeli Culture Night
Sol 3 | Trouble Sleeping & Freeze Dried Food on Mars
Sol 4 | Snow on Mars
Sol 5 | How Do You Celebrate Irish Night On Mars?
Sol 6 | What Do We Do With Money On Mars?
Sol 7 | The Inspirational Power Of Mars
Sol 8 & 9 | This Is Mars Calling The Children Of Earth
Sol 10 | A Short Screen Play Set On Mars
Sol 11 | A Thousand Photographs Of Mars
Sol 12 | The Curse Of The Gigabyte Hobgoblin

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About Author

Niamh Shaw

Dr Niamh Shaw, a performer, scientist and engineer, is passionate about awakening people's curiosity. Formerly a full-time academic and published author in peer-reviewed journals she embarked on a career which merges science, art, technology and humanity and is currently the Artist in Residence at CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory, Cork. Niamh regularly contributes popular science/tech related topics on national TV and radio, including TV3's Late Lunch Live for Science Foundation Ireland, as well as speaking publicly at events including TEDxUCD, Trailblazery (2013), Space Expo (Trinity College), Festival of Curiosity (Space Tourist 2014; Curious Tales with Dara O’Briain, 2013). Her most recent science art performance,'To Space’, funded by Science Foundation Ireland (in partnership with CIT BCO) & The Arts Council of Ireland about Irelands involvement in Space, premiered at Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival and will be presented at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August this year, supported by Culture Ireland.

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